In the first few weeks of the pandemic, it was just a trickle: companies like Alaskan airline Ravn Air pushed into bankruptcy as travel came to a halt and markets collapsed. But the financial distress wrought by the shutdowns only deepened, producing what is now a wave of insolvencies washing through America’s corporations.
In May alone, some 27 companies reporting at least $50 million in liabilities sought court protection from creditors - the highest number since the Great Recession. They range from well-known US mainstays such as J.C. Penney Co. and J. Crew Group Inc. to air carriers Latam Airlines Group SA and Avianca Holdings, their business decimated as travelers stayed put.
In May 2009, 29 major companies filed for bankruptcy, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. And year-to-date, there have been 98 bankruptcies filed by companies with at least $50 million in liabilities - also the highest since 2009, when 142 companies filed in the first four months.
Few people believe bankruptcies have by any means hit a peak.
“I think we’re going to continue to see filings of at least the level we’re seeing for a while,” said Melanie Cyganowski, a former bankruptcy judge now with the Otterbourg law firm.
The wave of insolvencies is seemingly at odds with US credit markets, which are busier than ever: investment-grade corporations were able to cushion their balance sheets by borrowing nearly $1 trillion in the first five months of the year, the fastest pace on record. No such luck for weaker companies. Their revenues have evaporated, straining their ability to keep up with debt payments and all but forcing them to seek refuge in bankruptcy court.
“If you know someone at the bankruptcy courts, be sure to thank them,” Duston McFaul, a partner at law firm Sidley Austin, said in an email. “They’re already over-stretched and we’re only in the first inning.”